First collection under Abu Bakr

December 2020

If Muhammad had bequeathed a complete, codified text of the Quran as is claimed by some Muslim writers, there would have been no need for a collection or recension of the text after his death. Yet, once the primary recipient of the Quran had passed away, it was only logical that a collection should be made of the whole Quran into a single text.

The widely accepted traditional account of the initial compilation of the Quran ascribes the work to Zaid ibn Thabit, one of the four companions of Muhammad said to have known the text in its entirety. Other companions also began to transcribe their own codices of the Quran independently of Zaid shortly after Muhammad’s death, but the most significant undertaking was that of Zaid as it was done under the authority of Abu Bakr, the first Caliph of Islam, and it is to this compilation that the Hadith literature gives the most attention. It also became the standard text of the Quran during the caliphate of Uthman.

Upon Muhammad’s death a number of tribes in the outer parts of the Arabian Peninsula reneged from the faith they had recently adopted, whereupon Abu Bakr sent a large number of the early Muslims to subdue the revolt forcibly. This resulted in the Battle of Yamama and a number of Muhammad’s close companions, who had received the Quran directly from him, were killed. What followed is described in this well – known hadith: Narrated Zaid bin Thabit : Abu Bakr as – Siddiq sent for me when the people of Yamama had been killed………

Then Abu Bakr said (to me): “You are a wise young man and we do not have any suspicion about you, and you used to write the Divine Inspiration, for Allah’s Apostle (saw). So you should search for (the fragmentary scripts of) the Quran and collect it (in one book)”.By Allah ! If they had ordered me to shift one of the mountains, it would not have been heavier for me than this ordering me to collect the Quran. Then I said to Abu Bakr,” How will you do something which Allah’s Apostle did not do? “Abu Bakr replied “By Allah, it is a good project” (Sahih al-Bukhari Vol. 6, p. 477).

Zaid eventually expressed approval of the idea in principle after Umar and Abu Bakr had both pressed the need upon him and agreed to set about collecting the text of the Quran into one book. One thing is quite clear from the narrative – the collection of the Quran is said quite expressly to have been something which Allah’s Apostle did not do.

Zaid’s hesitation about the task partly occasioned by Muhammad’s own disinterest in codifying the text into a single unit and partly by the enormity of it, shows that it was not going to be an easy undertaking. If he was a perfect hafiz of the Quran and knew the whole text off by heart, nothing excepted, and if a number of the other companions were also endowed with such outstanding powers of memorisation, the collection would have been quite simple. He needed only to write it down out of his own memory and have the others check it.

Some Muslim writers claim that all the huffaz of the Quran among Muhammad’s companions all knew the Quran in its entirety to perfection, to the last word and letter, and some say that the power of retaining the Quran in the memory of those who learnt it by heart was no less than supernaturally acquired.

If we are to take the assumption of the divine enabling of the memory to its logical conclusion, we must conclude that the collection of the Quran would have been the easiest of tasks. If Zaid and the other qurra (memorisers) each knew, by divine assistance and purpose, the whole Quran to the last letter without any error or omission – this is the Muslim hypothesis – we would hardly have found him responding to the appeal to collect the Quran as he did.

Instead of immediately turning to his memory alone he made an extensive search for the text from a variety of sources: So I started looking for the Quran and collecting it from (what was written on) palm – leaf stalks, thin white stones, and also from the men who knew it by heart, till I found the last verse of Surat at-Tauba (repentance) with Abi Khuzaima al- Ansari, and I did not find it with anybody other than him. (Sahih al – Bukhari, Vol. 6, p. 478).

At the death of Muhammad, the Quran was scattered in the memories of men and on various written materials. It was to these that the young companion of Muhammad duly turned when preparing to codify the text into a single book. The two primary materials, amongst the others mentioned, were  “the parchments”- and “the breasts of men” as-Suyuti, Al-Itqan fii Ulum al-Quran, p. 137), He looked not only to human memory but also to written materials, consulting as many of the latter as he could find no matter what their origin (i. e., white stones, etc.). It was to many companions that he turned and to all kinds of material upon which fragments of the Quran had been written.

His was not the action of a man believing he had been divinely endowed with an infallible memory upon which he could exclusively rely but rather of a careful scribe who was going to collect the Quran from all the possible sources where it was known to be, from scraps, fragments and portions. This was the action of a man conscious of the wide dispersal of the text who would assemble as much of it as he could to produce as complete and authentic a text as was humanly possible.

The earliest traditions of Islam make it quite clear that the search was widespread, though one finds later writers claiming that all the written materials Zaid is said to have relied on the shoulder-blades of animals, parchments, pieces of leather, etc. were all found stored in Muhammad’s own household and that they were bound together to ensure their preservation. Al- Harith al-Muhasabi, in his book Kitab Fahm as-Sunan, said that Muhammad used to order that the Quran be transcribed and that, whereas it was indeed in different materials, when Abu Bakr ordered it to be collected into one text, these materials “were found in the house of the messenger of Allah  in which the Quran was spread out” (as -Suyuti, Al – ltqan fii Ulum al – Quran, p. 137).

They were thereafter gathered together and bound so that nothing could be lost. The earliest records of Hadith literature, however, make it quite plain that Zaid conducted a wide search for the parchments and other materials upon which portions of the Quran had been inscribed.

Some Muslim apologists argue for a more limited field of research on the part of Zaid to collect the Quran, stating that Zaid was the only companion to be with Muhammad on the last occasion when Gabriel  went over the Quran with him and that he only looked for those pieces of leather and other materials already mentioned upon which the Quran had been written under “the direct supervision of Rasulullah. They state that although there were other texts of the Quran available, these had not been written down under Muhammad’s supervision but by his companions relying on their memories.

No evidences or documentation of any kind is given to show their sources for all these claim. However, we know that in respect of Muhammad’s last recitation of the Quran with Jibril, that it was a secret divulged only to his daughter Fatima (Sahih al- Bukhari, Vol. 6, p. 485). This would hardly have been a secret if Zaid had been present on that occasion. Likewise the earliest records of the collection of the Quran under Abu Bakr make no distinction between portions of the Quran written directly under Muhammad’s supervision and those that were not, nor do they suggest that Zaid relied on the former alone.

These are relatively modern interpretations done to maintain the hypothesis that the Quran was perfectly compiled, but one without foundation in the earliest records. There are traditions that show that, upon receiving a portion of the Quran, Muhammad would command his scribes (of whom Zaid was one) to write it down (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p. 481), but there is nothing in the very earliest works to support the idea that the whole Quran, as written under Muhammad’s supervision, was already assembled in his own home.

There are a number of traditions in the Kitab al -Masahif of Ibn Abi Dawud which suggest that Abu Bakr was the first to undertake an actual codification of the text, each of which reads very similarly to the others and follows this form : It is reported… from Ali who said :”May the mercy of Allah be upon Abu Bakr, the foremost of men to be rewarded with the collection of the manuscripts, for he was the first to collect (the text) between (two) covers”. (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al – Masahif, p. 5).

Even here, however, we find clear evidence that there were others who preceded him in collecting the Quran texts into a single written codex : It is reported… from Ibn Buraidah who said :”The first of those to collect the Quran into a mushaf (codex) was Salim, the freed slave of Abu Hudhaifah”. (as-Suyuti, Al- Itqan fii Ulum al-Quran, p. 135). This Salim is one of only four men whom Muhammad recommended from whom the Quran should be learnt (Sahih al-Bukhari,. Vol. 5, p. 96) and he was one of the qurra (reciters) killed at the Battle of Yamama. As it was only after this battle that Abu Bakr set out to collect the Quran into a single text as well, it goes without saying that Salim’s codification of the text must have preceded his through Zaid ibn Thabit.

Perspective on the initial collection of the Quran

At this stage we have a clear trend emerging. Official tradition focuses on the collection of the Quran by Abu Bakr as the first, foremost and, at times, only compilation of the text made upon Muhammad’s death. Later writers have endeavoured to strengthen this view by suggesting that Zaid was the only man qualified for the task, that the whole Quran, no matter in what form, was found in Muhammad’s apartments, and that it was to written portions inscribed under Muhammad’s supervision alone that the redactor turned to compile his codex. Contemporary Muslim opinion goes even further to claim that the Quran, as thus compiled, is an exact record – with not so much as a dot, letter or word added or lost – of the script as it was delivered to Muhammad.

On the other hand an objective analysis of the initial collection of the Quran, based on a rational assessment of the evidences without regard to sentiment or presupposition, can only go so far as to conclude that the text as compiled by Zaid, which later became the model for Uthman’s standardised text, was simply the final product of an honest attempt to collect the Quran insofar as the redactor was able to do so from a wide variety of materials and sources upon which he was obliged to rely.

It is the very character of these sources that we should at this stage assesses and reconsiders. Zaid relied on the memories of men and various written materials. No matter how much those early companions sought to memorise the text perfectly, human memory is a fallible source, and, to the extent that a book the length – of the Quran had been committed to memory, we should expect to find a number of variant readings in the text and this proves to be well-founded.

The reliance on a host of portions of the Quran scattered among a number of companions must also lead to certain logical expectations. There exists a clear possibility that portions of the text may have been lost – the loose distribution of the whole text in many fragments and portions as opposed to a carefully maintained single text is adequate ground to make the expectation well-founded when the evidences are considered and assessed.

A typical example worth quoting at this point is found in the following hadith which plainly states that portions of the Quran were irretrievably lost in the Battle of Yamama when many of the companions of Muhammad who had memorised the text had perished: Many (of the passages) of the Quran that were sent down were known by those who died on the day of Yamama…….. but they were not known (by those who) survived them, nor were they written down, nor had Abu Bakr, Umar or Uthman (by that time) collected the Quran, nor were they found with even one (person) after them. (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al – Masahif, p. 23). The negative impact of this passage can hardly be missed: that these portions of the Quran which had gone down with the qurra who had died at Yamama had been lost forever and could not be recovered.

The very fact of such a wide distribution of the Quran – texts however, appears to negate the possibility that anyone could have added anything to the text after Muhammad’s death. Not being collected into a single text but spread among many companions, there exists a strong possibility that some of the text may have been lost, but at the same time there appears to be no such possibility that it could have been interpolated in any way. The retention of so much of the Quran in the memories of Muhammad’s companions is a sure guarantee that no one could have added to it in any way and gained acceptance for his innovations.

Lastly, in considering the sources, we should not be surprised to find that other codices of the Quran text were being compiled in addition to that being executed by Zaid. Once again we look to the evidence that a number of companions had an extensive knowledge of the Quran and it is only to be expected that these would soon seek to preserve, in single codices, what was at that time still fresh in their memories and loosely transcribed on a selection of different materials.

The possibility that part of the text may have been lost is strengthened by evidences in the Hadith literature which show that even Muhammad himself occasionally forgot portions of the Quran. One of these traditions reads as follows and is taken from one of the earliest works of Hadith: Aishah said: A man got up (for prayer) at night, he read the Quran and raised his voice in reading. When morning came, the Apostle of Allah (saw) said : May Allah have mercy on so-and- so ! Last night he reminded me a number of verses I was about to forget. (Sunan Abu Dauud, Vol. 3, p.- 1114).

The translator has a footnote to this tradition, stating that Muhammad had not forgotten these verses of his own accord but had been made to forget them by Allah as a teaching for the Muslims. Whatever the purpose or cause, it is quite clear that Muhammad had occasion to forget passages that had been, as he proclaimed, revealed to him. The suggestion that Muhammad’s oversight of such texts was not of his own doing but brought about through Allah’s decree is based on the following, text of the Quran: None of our revelations (ayat) do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten but We substitute something similar or better. Knowest thou not that Allah has power over all things? Al-Baqarrah 2. 106.

Let us conclude this section. Zaid, quite obviously one of the companions of Muhammad who had an outstanding knowledge of the Quran, set about collecting its text so as to produce as genuine and authentic a codex as he possibly could. His integrity in this undertaking is not to be questioned and we may accordingly deduce from all the evidences he consulted that the single Quran text he finally presented to Abu Bakr was a basically authentic record of the verses and suras as they were preserved in the memories of the reciters and in writing upon various materials.

The evidences, however, do not support the modern hypothesis that the Quran, as it is today, is an exact replica of the original, nothing lost or varied. There is no evidence of any interpolation in the text and such a suggestion (occasionally made by Western writer can be easily discounted, but there are ample evidences to indicate that the Quran was incomplete when it was transcribed into a single text and that many of its passages and verses were transmitted in different forms.

Extract from Jam’ Al-Quran by John Gilchrist